So This is Love
My friend cried as she spoke. With shoulders slumped under a tatty t-shirt, she told me this secret: her husband constantly belittles her. He lies to her, threatens her, hides things from her, and mocks her, even in front of their children. With his words he breaks her.
It was summer when we talked; hot, sweat-filled days bled into long, humid nights. Whiteflies hovered above my indoor plants…some nestled into the soil attaching to roots, while others stalked through my lounge-room. The whiteflies were bad that summer. They turned my indoor plants, things that should have been beautiful, into objects ugly, squalid, disturbing. We sat on the couch, my friend and I, sipping cold coffee. My friend swatted away whiteflies. “I didn’t think love would be like this,” she said.
Love is patient. Love is kind. If you’ve been to a wedding, you may know what comes next, after a string of adjectives: Love bears all things (1 Corinthians 13:7, English Standard Version). Another verse came to mind: God is love (1 John 4:8, ESV).
A whitefly fell into my coffee. I watched it drown in the brown liquid. My friend was quiet. She stared, unseeing. “Surely,” I thought, “if God is love He wouldn’t want us, in the name of love, to bear domestic abuse?”
Real love gives you life
At night, I lie in my spouse’s arms. We talk. We laugh. We share dreams and make plans; my back against chest, my body between strong arms. Here I feel safe. Through love, we’ve grown into more confident, compassionate and freer versions of our true selves.
If you’ve moved through anxiety or depression, you’ll know living can feel like you’re stumbling, exhausted, lost in a cold fog on a dark night. As the depression and anxiety fade, it’s like you’ve stepped into warm daylight and found your way home. Real love, God’s love, is like that. God’s love animates you. Real love gives you life: “This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so we might live through him.” (1 John 4:7, The Message)
Real love is unconditional
Each morning, I hear my five-year-old daughter’s feet loud against the floorboards. I feel the air move as she opens my bedroom door. “Good morning,” she smiles. Until I met her, I didn’t know words could be smiled. For her, mornings really are good. We play a game, her and I. I pull a silly face, draw in a deep breath like I’m about to say something oh-so important. Before I can speak, she giggles, patting my face. “Yes, mum, I know you love me.” She lives with enthusiasm and confidence, exactly how we’re meant to live.
With real love, you don’t have to mind your words. You don’t have to watch for angry fists or glass breaking against walls. You don’t have to beg for money or to see your family and friends. There is no “do better,” “be better,” “try harder” or “be more like…” with God. God loves you just as you are right now. He doesn’t condemn you. In fact, our wonderful God wants to free you from shame:
“Let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality. It’s also the way to shut down debilitating self-criticism, even when there is something to it. For God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves. And friends, once that’s taken care of and we’re no longer accusing or condemning ourselves, we’re bold and free before God.” (1 John 3:18–21, The Message)
False love destroys you
Domestic abuse robs you of life. Its object is control. Its dark, twisted heart is filled with selfishness and hate. Violence is like pests on indoor plants. Under their weight, plants wither and rot. Under the weight of emotional and physical abuse, we shrivel in fear. Fear isn’t love, for “well-formed love banishes fear.” (1 John 4: 8, The Message) Hate isn’t love, for “if anyone boasts, ‘I love God,’ and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar.” (1 John 4: 20, The Message)
I spray a white, poisonous mist across my indoor plants. The poison will free them of pests. Pests and healthy plants are incompatible, as are domestic abuse and real love: “The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can’t know him if you don’t love.” (1 John 4:18, The Message)
Breaking free of false love
I wish I could tell you my friend’s story ends happily. But, it’s never only one story, one conversation, one friend. False love affects us all. It winds through our communities, our churches, our homes. We’re not all called to directly minister to the abused. Domestic abuse is dangerous and complex. Domestic violence support services know how to respond.
And yet, we are all called to love one another. As a church, we can acknowledge that domestic abuse is real and that it’s not okay. We can reach out to domestic violence support services, and serve them as they serve those affected by violence. We can end the silence, and make it known that we stand against false love. We can ensure that in our churches, the weary and the abused can find God’s life-affirming grace, and can know God truly is love.